The PFG Social Club: Mike Doughty at the Drake Underground

As someone with no shortage of fandoms and cultural obsessions I always find it fascinating to witness someone else’s, the level of devotion that can be summoned up from someone who usually exists outside the normal arenas of fandom.

Take The Lady. When we first met, one of the things I found interesting about her was her love of the largely-forgotten jazz-hop quartet Soul Coughing and subsequent solo career of frontman Mike Doughty.  This is no casual enjoyment; we’re talking multiple bootleg concert recordings, autographed setlist pinned to the fridge with a magnet, a drawer full of t-shirts, worked as the mailing list facilitator at a show in Michigan just to speak to him before showtime levels of devotion. There’s a scene in the movie “Knocked Up” where Paul Rudd comments to Seth Rogen that he wished he liked anything as much as his kids like bubbles; I wish I liked anything as much as The Lady likes Mike Doughty.

Last night we hit the Drake Underground for her eighth Doughty performace and my fifth.

Doughty’s on the road to not just to promote his latest album Yes and Also Yes, but also his recently published memoir The Book of Drugs, so readings from the book were sprinkled throughout the performance.  In addition to all that, Doughty took questions from the crowd, some submitted before the show, but most shouted out by the small but devoted crowd in attendance.

Doughty’s career path has been turbulent to say the least. He founded Soul Coughing in his early twenties, envisioning it as the loudest live rap band in the industry, and recruited a trio of musicians much older than him that he knew from his days as a doorman at The Knitting Factory in New York. They got signed, put out three albums that are still beloved by many today, and had one radio hit with ‘Circles,’ from their final album.

Conditions within the band began to deteriorate and Doughty ended up strung out on heroin. He broke the band up, got cleaned up, threw an acoustic guitar in how car and started traveling the country playing solo shows and making music that sounded nothing like Soul Coughing, culminating in the release of his first proper solo record, Haughty Melodic.

This is the time in his life the memoir recounts, and the time he wanted to talk about at the show last night, explicitly stating he was only interested in answering ‘gnarly questions about Soul Coughing.’

The lesson learned is: Don’t hold your breath for SC to join in with the 90’s rock reunion trend, as Doughty cannot put enough distance between himself and the other three. And not without reason; this isn’t the petulant stubbornness of some musician harboring a personal grudge, there is serious hurt and damage there.

“I grew up in an abusive family, I was going to find those people again,” Doughty said of his former bandmates, specifically
recounting bizarre moments where Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg [though Doughty refused to refer to him or any of his former bandmates by name] tried to pin overseas long distance calls on him while on tour, or replying to fan emails claiming Doughty didn’t know how to tune his own guitar among other assorted backstabbers, in addition to the other members’ tenacious legal claims towards publishing on songs they had nothing to do with, like the track he collaborated on with the DJ BT, which Doughty alleges contains a verse from an a song he brought to his bandmates who rejected it, yet sued for publishing when it showed up on the BT song.

“It’s unfortunate when I meet Soul Coughing fans, because I’m not one,” said Doughty, likening listening to Soul Coughing to what most people feel when they listen to Nickelback.

“Do you think any of your songs were improved by what the other three brought to them?” asked The Lady from the crowd.

“Not a one,” said Doughty, without any hesitation, though he did concede that he did have a sort of detached satisfaction towards some of them.

For me, it was a night probably better suited to my level of fandom than The Lady’s. Aside from three songs from the new album he didn’t play any songs newer than the material on Haughty Melodic, and spent half the night dishing on his old band, and I’ll always be a sucker for band gossip of any sort. For her, these were stories and facts she already knew, but for someone like me who was hearing them for the first time, it was an altogether engrossing night of music, literature and, in its way, catharsis.

And, as with so many other things this I seem to encounter lately, there was a moment of the show custom-fitted to my February-fueled creative meltdown.  Someone asked Doughty why this was the right time to write the book. He said the primary reason was someone called his bluff, having heard him muse that he should write one enough times that they finally gave him some money and told him to go do it.  He said the hardest part of most creative endeavours, and the key to creative anxiety, is simple:

“If you put things out there, you lose the luxury of considering yourself an undiscovered genius.”

Yow.  Yeah, I thought about that a lot the rest of the night.

Near the end of the show, Doughty let the crowd know he was A-OK with stealing music, encouraging those in attendance to buy the album if they could, and pass copies along to as many friends as possible, since he believes Napster saved his career in the late 90’s, as he toured the country selling copies of an album his label didn’t want.  Of all the songs from that first album, he credited this one for keeping his momentum going during that shaky time. It’s also a song I downloaded from Napster in the late 90’s.  Full circle, that.  Watch his performance of that song, a cover of ‘Real Love’ by Mary J. Blige, below.

The Book of Drugs is available in finer bookstores now.

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